The Power of Doubt

I made these images last week while in Salt Lake City on business. There was little intent here, just a few spare moments to walk the streets. A few days after I showed these images to someone I walked with and he said “I like these, and they make me wonder why I didn’t shoot that moment or space?” I told him that was the beauty of photography, that there is no right and wrong, and each of us sees the world in a strange and unique way. This is something I’ve written about many times here on Smogranch, about how each photographer has a view on things and the real task is to find that view, polish it and to be able to call upon it when needed, sometimes at a moments notice. It has never been easy and the same applies today, even when we have so much new at our fingertips, a new that promises to make everything effortless. It never does. In fact, it has no effect on this pursuit at all. None.

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But that is not what I want to talk about. I don’t particularly like these images. In fact, they don’t even feel like they are mine. But they brought up something very important in my mind; doubt. There is a detachment with these images, and rightly so. I wasn’t particularly interested in the subject matter and I was walking and talking with someone else, a practice that is enjoyable but one that also forces me to balance looking with the act of interacting with another human being. I can’t really do both. I’m simply not good enough at the moment, or perhaps I never was.
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What these images made me realize was I have not been excited about images for a long, long while. My own images I should say. I’ve not made a single image, for a considerable amount of time, that I feel truly connected with. And now the doubt has begun to emerge. Am I still capable of making great work? Was I ever? Have I ever? Now I have certain bodies of work I feel are stronger than others, and some of these bodies did acquire accolades over the years, so I feel it’s not home team bias to think they might be good work. But they were done years ago, and frankly I don’t know if I’m still capable of making work like this. Doubt.
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All of my good work was people based, and this specific style of image requires time, access, trust and connection. Time. There is simply no way around it. I look back on the good work and see the YEARS flip by on the calendar. I see the film piled up, the long flights, the complete, selfish deep dive into ONLY the project. Nothing else mattered or even breached the edges of my radar. In fact, other than my wife, I HAD nothing else. Nothing. Only photography, which is something I look back on now and cringe. I should have never let it go this far, but I did, and the one upside is the work. But now I live a different life where photography lives on the same street but in a different house. She is a friendly neighbor but I hardly see her, and when I do it’s only a quick “hello” and “goodbye.”

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But a part of me wonders if it’s still possible, and if I could resurrect something good if given the chance. Yesterday, as a test, I made a decision to take the first step in the required direction, which for me is all about mental space. Meditation as disconnect. I was in treatment for my Lyme Disease, and I have the option of watching a television connected to cable, not something I usually have access to seeing as my house is void of TV. Normally, I use this treatment time to zone out and forget, but yesterday I turned the television off, crossed my legs and just let my mind wander. Suddenly I was inside a book. A white book with only a faint trace of content, pulled back and faded to the edge of nothing. It took a moment to understand where I was and what I was looking at, but then I realized it was the future book I had thought about but had yet to formulate. Physically I was in a small cubicle of treatment but my mind was somewhere else, completely and utterly at peace and working with precise and uncluttered focus, eyes open, hands moving and handling the book that was yet to be. The title came to me, the cover design and the copy required for the introduction. All of it. Word by word, image by image.
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And then suddenly I was back. Soaked in sweat. Like coming up from the depths of isolation and back into this world. I wasn’t sure how much time had passed, but I knew it was a considerable amount. It was like I had ceased to exist, in a physical sense, while “away” and doing “work.” I began to retrace my route and the things I had discovered. I had no pen or paper, so I tried to file the list away for a future retrieval. I was pleased because I knew I still had what I required, at least mentally, to do work I want to do. I still had the REM sleep of focus required to really connect.
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In London a few weeks back I had a conversation with an Instagram photographer and admitted that IG was the first social network I decided to delete. I explained why I needed to do this. This person listened patiently then asked if there wasn’t another way for me to work around this. I said I didn’t think so. I’m sure others can do it, but I’m entirely sure I cannot. In fact, what these fractional things did to me was ensure I was never truly connected to what was around me because they were a constant distraction, or filter, of my true thoughts at any given time. If I’m staring at a phone, or television for that matter, how can I NOT be distracted.
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My doubt still remains. I’m not sure I can see the way I need to, but I now know I can still find the focus required. These images are a reminder to me that there are real photographs and there are phantoms, crisscrossing our eyes, distracting our brain, or deflecting reality just a bit longer. Filler. They keep the fluids moving and the parts greased just enough that the machine does not falter or grind to a halt. At some point in the near future I will need to face this doubt, make a stand or learn to ignore, and this is when the real fun will begin.

“Cups”: Frank Jackson

I met Frank Jackson a few years ago and knew I had found someone with whom I share some DNA. No we don’t look alike. He’s a lot taller than me. But we share a love of paper, pens, Leicas, quiet time, folding bikes, photography, poetry, music and COFFEE. As you will note in one of these images, Frank has the coffee maker of all coffee makers. I don’t know what it is, but I had to get clearance just to be in the same room with it. He showed up at the Palm Springs Photo Festival with a ceramic grinder, high-grade Colombian brown flake and 100% pure Himalayan spring water culled from the mountains by chosen people.

Frank was the perfect guy for me to get addicted to Blurb. Plus, he’s a friend so if anything goes wrong I can pull the “Hey, not my fault” thing and be totally fine. Like most other things, Frank took to the Blurb like a moth to the flame. Now he is hooked. Not only did he make a book, seen below, but he has two or three more on order. Frank travels a lot and tends to go back to one place over and over again, places like Europe. I like this. Years ago he plucked a coffee cup out of its place in the world and began photographing the same cup in a variety of locales. In addition he just shoots coffee and coffee cups. But this isn’t a book about coffee. I would describe Frank as a photographic drifter, but he is a photographer drifter with a plan. If you check the link at the bottom of the post “Balance” you will see what I mean. Images shot all over the world but with a consistent theme. This happens because a photographer is always looking and feeling and understanding the connection between things and places and people and light. I dig it.

Frank chose the Blurb 6×9, which you all know is one of my favorite formats. Smallish, lightish and priced for sales if you are so inclined. He did some interesting things with the design which I also love. And just when I thought I’d seen it all he pulled out a book of illustrations that I LOVED, so I know there are more Blurb gems on the way. It’s good to see these books taking off like they are, the 6×9’s I mean. I show these around a lot and get a lot of mental wheels spinning. Also, on a sidenote, I saw one of my own 6×9’s printed imagewrap and was amazed at how much I liked it. I normally just make softcover but that might have to change. For those of you who were commenting on length of projects, Frank has been working on this baby for a long while and can’t imagine him slowing down anytime soon.

Oh, by the time I could write and post this post he emailed with ANOTHER book……told you he was hooked.


BALANCE LINK

Color of Light

All three of these photos suck but I’m using them not for their content but for other reasons. First, most of the images I make pretty much suck, so these are a good “case in point.” The top one I thought was going to be gangbusters, but the sky just wasn’t working for me. The middle image was about motion but I just didn’t get enough, and the final image was made in an attempt to time someone out on the rock, someone who was using a strobe. I was trying to time it with a long exposure to get their flash going off, which I did in other frames but missed entirely on this one. Oh well, life is evil and we all turn to dust. Now that we have that out of the way, let’s keep moving.

These images are here because of the color of the light.


But before we talk color of light I want you forget a few things.
Your education, your photography studies, your camera, your lens, your laptop, your software, your filter sets, your camera bag, your gadgets and gizmos, your pixel depth, your megapixels, your fluoride elements, your aperture, your shutter speed, your tripod, your camera tape, your hard drive, your calibration device, your thunderbolt plug, your monitor, your iPad, your iPhone, your blog, your Facebook page, your agent, your rep, your website, your career and for sh%$ sake please forget about “being a photographer” and “doing what you are supposed to do.” Okay, I’ll give you a few minutes to prepare.

Ready?


You need to forget all those things because they just don’t matter unless you are in the right light.
Light. Let me say it again, “light.”

People ask me all kinds of strange photography questions, which is one reason why I love having a blog. Photography, at least to me, is a somewhat strange pursuit. You point a light tight box at something in an effort to preserve it or share it or put some HDR thing on it to make it look like something you puked up after eating too much fried food at the fair. We make photography seem complicated but it really isn’t, not at all. We’ve built an industry around it for some reason, and this further increases the complexity, but the actual photography part stays painfully simple. For me it can all be summed up in three things. Light, timing and composition, and those are in a very specific order. LIGHT, timing and composition.

These images were all made in basically the same spot. Yes, I was moving around and they are from different angles and distances but it is the same slab of rock and the same enormous hole. These images were also made, I’m guessing, within roughly the same hour. Yes light changes that fast and so does the COLOR OF THE LIGHT and here lies the point of this post. I get a lot of questions about gear, which in the long run really doesn’t mean much. Gear is romantic. The top forty photography sites, in terms of traffic, are all gear and technology related. A significant portion of the workshops I see being offered today are all gear related. I think the idea of things like light and timing and composition are REALLY getting overlooked these days. But, again, the reality is if you are not using the right light then you really aren’t being the photographer you could be, and it surely doesn’t matter what device you have in your hand. The vast majority of the time, when I’m in the field working, my entire agenda is dictated by the light. Seriously, I can’t stress it any more than that. The light dictates where I go, when I go and how long I’m there. I don’t work in high noon light unless something has gone wrong or I have no choice or unless something truly dramatic is happening and I HAVE to make pictures right then and there. I’ll sit in my car for eight hours in 110 degree heat….waiting for the light to get right. There is no other way. My shooting is like a cage fight, months of training, months of hype and then three rounds of all out effort. Sometimes I get knocked out and other times I do some damage. I’m a 50/50 fighter at best, even with the light working for me.

Near my house in California is a protected waterway that birds really dig. Where there are birds there are birding photographers, and this place is no exception. They have camouflage trucks. They wear camouflage clothes. They all have Canon 600mm lenses….wrapped in camouflage. They have tripods…wrapped in camouflage. And….they all go out to shoot at HIGH NOON. I’ve never understood this. Standing in the blazing sun and cooking down the buffer on their 1DS Mark III’s. Don’t they look at good birding photography? Don’t they know that early morning and early evening give you not only direction of light but also COLOR OF LIGHT? These guys are like quantum physics, yes I know they exist but I have no understanding of them.

These Grand Canyon images illustrate color of light. Going in reverse order, the bottom image was shot first and just LOOK at how blue that light is. The middle image is moments before sunrise and the light is shifting, a middle ground of warm edges, white center light and a soul that is still blue. And the third image, the top one, is shortly after sunrise and yellow/red is now the statement being made. Within minutes in the desert environment the light will be gone, and when I say gone I mean virtually unusable. When I worked in Arizona it was the 8:30 AM to 5:30 PM rule of might as well go take a nap during these hours.

I see a fair number of portfolios and the photographer will begin showing me work made in horrible light. They will begin telling me about the equipment used, their philosophy and their desire to get a show or book. All I see is imagery made by someone with zero understand of light.

So, next time you venture out on a photo expedition take one last look at that clock. Go earlier, go later, look for clouds, look for rain or anything else that will add color or drama to the light. Good luck.

Turning the Table

The day has finally arrived. The tables have been turned and now the hunter has become the hunted. Kman is angling toward that strange and beautiful world of photography, and Uncle Dan is in his crosshairs. These are the first 6×6 images for Kman and the first time he ever put his hands on the Hasselblad. I of course snapped him snapping me and my favorite princess tagged along because that is what little sisters do.

This was a short session. We braved the hundred degree temps, scorpions and chiggers to wade our way through one roll of the beloved TRI-X. As you can see he shares my fondness for all things backlit. Smart kid. This story began a few months ago when my mom told me that Kman was in the front yard with her camera and had been out there for hours. “There isn’t anything out there, so I’m not entirely sure what he is doing,” she said.

Weeks later my brother said, “You need to see these pictures.” “I’m not saying they are great but there is a purpose behind them, he is looking for something.” All of this, of course, peaked my interest. Into the mail went a box of film, a lens and a Leica point-and-shoot.


This trip I knew we would get a chance, however brief, to talk about photography and also give him a chance to get his grubby mitts on the Blad. He isn’t a “screen kid” thank God, so his interest isn’t in seeing anything right away or sitting inside on his computer.

An arrangement has been made. Shoot your film and save it up. Ship it to uncle Dan who will edit and print. I’ll then make my critique and ship everything back. A one on one if you will. At our pace. No hurry, no rush, no need for anything other than a bit of critical, 13-year-old thinking.

This kid is a thinker. He is very thoughtful, quiet until the dam bursts and then impossible to turn off. I’m not sure what goes through the head of a modern 13-year-old but I have a feeling I’m about to find out.

The Feeling

Remember that feeling you had as a kid? That feeling of being able to do anything? Nothing was outside the bounds of possibility. The world was your oyster, and then you got educated, trained, confined, conformed and molded into what society, and your family, thought you should be.

“When are you going to get serious?” “When are you going to settle down?” “When are you going to get a job?”

This is a strange concept, but it happens to most of us. I can still remember feeling the pressure of these questions, and I can remember watching my friends go through the same thing. Our culture demands it of most and because of this, in my opinion, we have a lot of talented people who will remain nameless, tasteless and unknown because the conformity got the best of them. A house, a car, 401k, suburbia, and the idea of spending thirty to forty of your most productive years doing something you may or may not want to do.

I’m writing about this for two reasons. First, the content of the image included here. I can’t look at this and not laugh. This is a guy named Nick, someone I haven’t seen in years. This image was made in the hills near Mono Lake in Northern California. Nick is doing something that I’m not sure has an official name. I’ll just call it “Hill Running.” The point? To eat complete and total S%$%. The premise, start at the top, start running downhill at top speed until you hit that velocity where there is no ability to stop and then….well….just see what happens. Nick ate complete and total S%$# on this run, and the runs after and people that was the point(He also had a few successful runs.) It was about doing what he wasn’t “supposed” to do. Now you might label this as “stupid,” and maybe it is, but maybe it’s genius. I can only tell you how entertaining it was to watch.

Sometimes when I look around at the creative world I wish we had a bit more hill running in our lives.
The crossroads we find ourselves at is one of success verses failure, and for whatever reason failure is rarely looked upon as a learning experience and natural part of being creative. My personal belief is that this decline in acceptance of failure is tied to technology. I really like technology, but I am also very capable of calling bullshit on most of it. Does it make our lives easier? More efficient? Maybe, maybe not. Ever notice in the spy movies how the commander calls up intel on some fugitive and some lackey hits one key and their real time criminal history pops up on forty-foot-wide screens in real time? When in reality the system would have crashed, the headset the person was wearing would be cutting out, the firmware on the mainframe wouldn’t have been updated and one of the screens would have been littered with dead pixels. In theory I love it all, and I surely love the movies. In reality I wonder if we are better off now or if we are slowly walking into proverbial quicksand. Massive plots of poorly constructed soulless houses being hastily erected, MILES from public transportation, is still labeled as “progress.” If anyone can tell me anything progressive, healthy, forward thinking or sustainable about that I’m all ears.

Several weeks ago I was with a classroom filled with second graders.
This was my second trip to this particular school. I was fortunate because I got to visit art class. I stood in a room filled with paints, glues, papers, inks, brushes, tablets, etc, and all I could think about was gathering a group of my adult friends and putting them in this room. I wanted to turn them loose and say “Don’t worry about what you were supposed to be, just create something.” I wondered what this could do for moral. I wondered how many unknown Picasso’s were in my circles. I wondered how many of my friends had hidden creative skills? And I wondered how we transfer this feeling and belief BACK into our normal lives.

I don’t know about you but the horizon seems a lot closer than it ever has.
I believe less in the traditional theories about life, capitalism and the ever growing sense of needing to have more and more and more. How about have less create more? What if we could share this collective mindset. What if your daily life FELT like hill running? Maybe yours does?